Before They Were Famous…

In honor of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame ceremony this week, here’s a look at the local roots of three of this year’s inductees…

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis

Before his signature sax lines punctuated a series of James Brown classics such as “Say it Loud (I’m Black I’m Proud)” and “Cold Sweat,” Pee Wee Ellis played saxophone in the Madison High School band.


Ellis in 1957

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis was born in Braderton, Florida in 1942, but relocated with his family to Lubbock, Texas seven years later. After enduring a racially-motivated tragedy, the Ellis’ decided to move again in 1955. They resettled in Rochester, where they had a number of relatives.

The young Alfred Ellis enrolled at Madison High, where his saxophone skills earned him a spot in the school band. Ellis also engaged in extracurricular studies, absorbing jazz performances at local clubs like the Pythodd and playing with local musicians such as noted bassist, Ron Carter, and the Mangione brothers.

A chance encounter with Sonny Rollins in New York City in 1957 drew Ellis to the city to study under the legendary tenor sax player. Ellis split his time between his hometown and the City before relocating there permanently in the early 1960s.

Ellis’ post-Rochester career as a musician, composer and arranger found him playing  with the Godfather of Soul followed by a series of dynamic artists including George Benson, Van Morrison and Ginger Baker.

Joe Locke

Before he became widely renowned as one of the world’s premier vibraphonists, Joe Locke was an East High Oriental.

           JoeLocke                        Can you find Joe Locke in this 1973 class photo?

Locke was born in Palo Alto, California in 1959, but was raised in Rochester. Both his father, Fred (a classic literature professor at the University of Rochester) and mother, Mary, were enamored with music and transferred this love to their son. He studied music at East High under the tutelage of Renee Fleming’s father, Edwin Fleming.

Like Pee Wee Ellis, Locke complemented his scholastic training with lessons from local musicians. Locke’s Rochester mentors included saxophonist Joe Romano, drummer Vinnie Ruggiero and saxophonist Joey Currazzato, in whose apartment Locke spent a lot of time listening to jazz records as a teen.

Locke deepened his musical training at the Eastman School of Music where he studied classical percussion and composition with  John Beck and Gordon Stout. In 1981, Locke left the Flower City for New York City where he built his career in earnest.

In the years since, the vibraphonist and composer has performed with an impressive array of musicians spanning from pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. to popular artists such as Rod Stewart and the Beastie Boys.

Wendy O. Williams

Before she wowed audiences with her bold stage antics, punk musician Wendy O. Williams was a shy student at R.L. Thomas High in Webster.


Sophomore Wendy Williams

Though she would later tell people she was born in “Plasmaville, U.S.A.,” Wendy Orlean Williams was born in Rochester in 1949. Her mother and father, a chemist at Eastman Kodak, raised Wendy and her two sisters in a modest State Road home in Webster.

The shock-rocker’s suburban upbringing wasn’t entirely staid, however. Williams was kicked out of her Brownie troop as a young girl and arrested for sunbathing nude in Letchworth State Park at the age of 15.

Williams nevertheless largely went unnoticed during her years at R.L. Thomas High. She played clarinet in the school band (and took clarinet lessons for six months at the Eastman Community Music School), but otherwise kept to herself.

“She was the meekest little lamb you would ever want to know,” explained Thomas guidance counselor, George Hugel.

Williams would later recall of her high school years, “I was an outcast, a loner. I never felt like I fit.” The alienated teen dropped out of school and left Webster in 1965 at the age of 16.

The following decade, her band, the Plasmatics, became a staple of the New York underground scene where Wendy’s radical conceptual performances earned her the title, the “Queen of Punk.”


-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 19, 2016 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochester Radical: The Journey of Christopher Lasch



Social critic Christopher Lasch

Join us on Saturday, April 16, from 1-2:30 pm in the Rundel Auditorium (Rundel Memorial Building, 3rd floor) for a fascinating look into the life and times of Christopher Lasch, perhaps America’s most preeminent social critic of the mid- to late 20th century.

The author of numerous celebrated books and articles, Lasch also seemed poised for an academic career as a historian that would lead him to the highest heights of the American university system. Instead, in 1970 after a decade of job-hopping, Lasch landed in Rochester and never moved again. He found an enriching community and planted deep roots in the “Flower City,” turning down other opportunities in order to remain in a place that aligned with his intellectual values. Join us for an exploration of the connections and affinities between person and place that tell Lasch’s quintessentially Rochester story.

Jeff Ludwig

Jeff Ludwig

Jeff Ludwig is the Director of Education at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, N.Y. He previously worked as a researcher in the Rochester Office of the City Historian and for the Local History Division of the Rochester Public Library. Jeff earned a PhD in History at the University of Rochester in 2014, completing a dissertation on the Rochester-based social critic Christopher Lasch.


It’s Campaigning Time Again…

Rochester has welcomed its fair share of presidential hopefuls over the years. Images from a number of these visits can be found in the Local History and Genealogy division’s photograph collection.


Humphrey’s New Day

Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s campaign made its local stop at the Greater Rochester International Airport in September, 1968. The Aquinas High School band played “Going Out of My Head” as the Democratic nominee’s plane landed at Page Airways Hangar.

The visibly road-worn politician delivered a gravelly-voiced speech largely from memory that was met with applause as well as gifts. A young woman placed a string of wooden “love beads” around Humphrey’s neck and the local Citizens for Humphrey organization presented the candidate with a two-month-old Pygmy burro named El Nueva Dia, or, “New Day, ”in reference to the vice president’s campaign slogan, “A New Day for America.”

Directly after completing his appearance (during which roughly 120 bottles of whiskey were consumed by attendees), Humphrey returned to his plane. A woman stopped the candidate on the way and remarked, “Oh, you’re so handsome, Mr. Humphrey,” to which he responded, “You know, I keep telling my wife that.”

Sadly, the baby burro did not make the trip. Because the young animal needed to be steadier on her feet before she could be crated, El Nueva Dia was sent to Lollypop Farm  to await her formal adoption.

Four years later, on September 22, 1972, Senator George McGovern graced Rochester with his presence, appearing at a rally of some 7,000 people on Elm Street near the Liberty Pole.

McGovernThe crowd, which McGovern claimed was the most enthusiastic he’d witnessed on the current leg of his campaign, was a diverse group that found flannel-shirted youths rubbing shoulders with fur stole-sporters.

A strong contingent of union representatives were in attendance as were members of the Rochester Area Women for Peace, who donned wide-brimmed hats emblazoned with “Another Woman for McGovern.”

The candidate appealed to the common interests of his diverse constituents, stating “I find a desperate hunger in people to make America a good, powerful and just land again. This is not radicalism. It is a plea to live by the great precepts by which we began two centuries ago.”

His greatest applause, however, came from his critique of the Nixon campaign’s recent break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building: “A political outfit that wiretaps and invades a national party’s offices might not hesitate to do the same thing to your law office, your bank, your union office or even your home.”

Interestingly, twelve years later, the local Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters was also the site of election season controversy. At 4:20am on November 1st, 1984, the day that President Reagan was to visit Rochester as part of his reelection campaign, a firebomb exploded in the doorway of the office at 353 East Main Street, creating a blast that resounded for several downtown blocks. Fortunately no one was hurt.

The incident did not interfere with Reagan’s visit. The president spoke at the Community War Memorial to a capacity crowd.


Hopeful attendees began arriving downtown shortly after dawn. A grandmother from Greece who stood among the throngs of people on Broad Street told a Times-Union reporter, “I got up real early and washed my hair. If I get to shake his hand, I wanted to be clean.”

Inside the venue, the President amused his audience with some digs at his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. “If his administration were a novel,” Reagan explained, “you’d have to read it from the back to the front to get a happy ending.”


Reserving his negative remarks for his rival, the Gipper kept the rest of his speech fairly positive, concluding, “The motto of the State of New York is excelsior—ever upward. Together, we can keep not just the spirit of New York, but America headed ever upward.”


-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 12, 2016 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Searching for Son

Son House album cover

Before I moved to Rochester just over a decade ago, a friend of mine suggested that when I got settled in my new city, I should seek out the former home of blues musician, Son House. House, he explained, had moved to Rochester after ending his music career and had lived there in relative obscurity for years before he was “rediscovered” in the 1960s.

Though such a search intrigued me, I became immersed in my doctoral studies shortly after my arrival to town and the name Son House didn’t reenter my mental orbit until a couple years later when I met Daniel Beaumont, a professor of Arabic at the University of Rochester who was in the nascent stages of writing a book on the blues legend. I quickly offered my services as a manuscript editor and documentary assistant. The latter role-though the film in question was never completed-involved accompanying Dan as he sought out the various Rochester sites where Son House had once lived, including the Greig street location where three of his fans found him on June 23, 1964.

This 1910 Plat Map depicts Son House’s apartment building at 61 Greig St:

61 Greig Plat Map

As Dan got further in his research, I was struck by how many people still living in Rochester bore some kind of personal connection to the elderly blues musician. A number of these people, including Joe Beard, Armand Schauenbrock and Brian Williams, greatly informed Dan’s finished product, Preachin’ The Blues-the Life & Times of Son House (Oxford University Press, 2011).



But while these individuals gave Dan insight into Son House’s rediscovery and life in the Flower City, it was another area resident, Richard Shade Gardner, who proved useful in helping Dan flesh out the musician’s post-Rochester years.

For Gardner, a longtime blues radio program host, House was “the blues personified.” The musician made such a strong impact on Gardner that he, like many others before him, decided to seek House out. Gardner would write about the 1981 journey that took him to the Detroit apartment where House spent his last years in the recently released volume, Finding Son House: One Searcher’s Story (2015).

Finding Son House cover

Gardner muses that House “had been discovered more times than America,” and rightly subtitles his work, “one searcher’s story.” Perhaps distinguishing Gardner’s experience from the pack is the fact that his hunt for House was at once a voyage in self-discovery. Indeed, Gardner touches on the various forces that informed his own life in Rochester while weaving reflections on spirituality and genealogy into the book’s overarching search narrative.

While Daniel Beaumont’s exhaustively researched monograph is undoubtedly the definitive work on the life and music of Son House, Richard Shade Gardner’s book provides both a unique personal account of the blues legend and a meditation on the meanings we ascribe to culture makers and their art.

Both Richard Shade Gardner’s Finding Son House: One Searcher’s Story and Daniel Beaumont’s Preachin’ the Blues: the Life and Times of Son House are available for perusal in the Local History and Genealogy Division.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 29, 2016 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

March is Women’s History Month!

March 26, 2016
Rundel Auditorium, 3rd floor, Rundel Memorial Building
*Please note: Parking on the Court and Broad street bridges is free on weekends*

Women Voted in New York—Before Columbus

The very first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, N.Y., 168 years ago, culminating in the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments (a document that has since been lost to history). The resulting women’s rights movement changed the course of history. But to the neighboring Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois) communities, political and economic equality among men and women was nothing new. Haudenosaunee women had had this authority—and more—since long before Christopher Columbus came to these shores.

While white women were the property of their husbands and considered dead in the law, Haudenosaunee women had more authority and status before Columbus than New York State women have today. Haudenosaunee women had the responsibility for putting the male leaders in place. They had control of their own bodies and were economically independent. Rape and wife beating were rare and dealt with harshly; committing violence against a woman kept a man from becoming Chief in this egalitarian, gender-balanced society. When women in New York State began to organize for their rights in 1848, they took their cue from the nearby Haudenosaunee communities. Despite the assimilation policies of the United States, Haudenosaunee women still maintain much of this authority today.

The 2017 centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State opens the opportunity for us to explore this new—yet very old—and unknown history of our region. We invite you to join us on March 26 at 1pm for a talk given by Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, Founding Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, N.Y. Dr. Wagner holds one of the first doctorates awarded for work in women’s studies (UC Santa Cruz).

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner

This program was made possible by funding from the Public Scholars program of the New York Council for the Humanities.  NYCH logo


Susan B. Anthony’s Rural Roots

Most Rochesterians know that Susan B. Anthony lived in the neighborhood that now bears her name, but fewer people are aware of the fact that prior to moving to her now iconic red brick house at 17 Madison Street in 1862, Anthony and her family lived on a farm in what was then part of Gates, NY.

Anthony Farm

Susan B. Anthony had spent the first part of her life in Adams, Massachusetts and Battenville, New York, where her father, Daniel Anthony managed a cotton mill. When the Panic of 1837 struck, Daniel Anthony’s business suffered and he began to search for another locale where the family could start anew. He initially tried looking in Virginia and Michigan but nothing caught his fancy. Later, he and his wife Lucy came upon a 32-acre farm west of Rochester, which they hastily purchased.

The plot they bought (marked “Anthony”) can be seen on the left side of this 1852 map:

Anthony Farm Map-1852

It is difficult to pinpoint the land’s current site with any precision, but Deborah Hughes, President of the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, suggests that the “north end of the farm connected with what is now Brooks, most likely somewhere between the current Genesee Park Blvd and Thurston Road.”

Anthony Farm Map-current

The Anthonys arrived at the farm on November 14, 1845 after a week-long journey that took them by stagecoach, rail and canal boat. The homestead stood on an elevation in front of a barn, a carriage house and a blacksmith shop.

Though the first winter at the new abode found the Anthonys homesick for their former farmland, they ingratiated themselves with the local Quaker community and began holding informal abolitionist meetings at the family home.

In the spring, Daniel Anthony set about improving the property by ploughing the land and planting peach and apple orchards. The farm eventually included cherry and quince trees as well as currant and gooseberry bushes. Daniel nevertheless found the farm unprofitable and  took work in the city with the New York State Life Insurance Company.

His daughter Susan meanwhile took a teaching a position with the Canajoharie Academy. She returned to the homestead in 1849. Since her brothers were away and her father was now working in Syracuse, she proved her self-sufficiency by taking charge of the whole farm, supervising the planting, harvesting and selling of the land’s crops.

To be sure, Susan’s life on the farm was marked by both physical labor and intellectual engagement.

In the early 1850s, the Anthony home became a favored meeting place for progressive minded men and women. Frederick Douglass was a frequent visitor as were Amy and Issac Post. Noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison also attended a meeting at the homestead.

According to Anthony’s biographer, Ida Harper Husted, “every one of these Sunday meetings was equal to a convention. The leading events of the day were discussed in no uncertain tones.”

Though Susan B. Anthony would move on to her much more famous residence following her father’s death in 1862, the family farmhouse in Gates nevertheless played a significant role in her life. The homestead she intermittently inhabited for almost twenty years not only endowed her with the opportunity to demonstrate the capacity for female independence, but it also provided a space where the future suffrage leader could develop and hone her political voice.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochester Through Time (or How I learned to stop worrying and love shameless self-promotion)

Back in April of 2014, I received a phone call from a retired history and social studies teacher named Mary Grenier. In 2009, Mary co-wrote a book on the history of Webster for Arcadia Publishing and was now being approached by an offshoot of that company, FontHill Media, to write a then-and-now style history book about Rochester.

Mary was familiar with the work I had done for the Democrat and Chronicle’s “Retrofitting Rochester” series, which also employed a  then-and-now format, contrasting historical and current photographs of various places in Rochester while detailing their historical evolution. Given my experience, Mary wondered if I might be interested in co-authoring her new book, tentatively titled, Rochester Through Time.

Upon receiving permission to work on the book as a special project in collaboration with the Office of the City Historian, Mary and I began holding a series of weekly meetings to discuss how best to approach the book. First and foremost, we agreed that in addition to highlighting the resources and residents that helped shape Rochester’s history, we wanted to make sure that all of the city’s neighborhoods were represented. We also decided that we should strive to find some images that hadn’t yet been featured in previous publications.


We spent hours poring through the photograph collections of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division, the Rochester Municipal Archives and the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center in search of images that were both iconic and interesting.We were also mindful of the fact we would need to be able to take current site photographs of whichever images we happened to select.

RTT-cover shot

Unfortunately, we ended up taking a number of these “now” photos during the unforgiving winter of 2015. I cannot not recommend taking photographs on the Pont de Rennes in the middle of January highly enough. Besides that feat of strength (or perhaps, idiocy), the most challenging shot we took was probably the book’s cover photo, which required me to stand in the middle of Broad Street facing oncoming traffic (in the dead of winter) in order to visually recreate the former route of the Erie Canal. Again, not highly recommended.

We ended up with way more photographs than was necessary, which left us with the unenviable task of narrowing a veritable sea of photos down to the 94 sets of images that appear in the book.  The collection includes photos generously donated by the aforementioned archives in addition to images provided by various local institutions such as the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, the Genesee Brewing Company and Savoia’s.

RTT_Genesee Brew House


It is our hope that these photos and the stories accompanying them help elucidate the topics, themes, people and places that make up Rochester’s rich history.


The final product, Rochester Through Time, was released in September 2015 and is now available for perusal in the Local History & Genealogy Division of the Central Library of Rochester.  It is also available for purchase from Simply New York, the MAG, the George Eastman House, Collegetown Barnes & Noble, East Avenue Wegmans, and


-Emily Morry, Library Assistant

Published in: on February 23, 2016 at 10:00 am  Comments (4)  

Malcolm X in Rochester

dandc 2_17_1965 x photo3

Local coverage of Malcolm X’s 1965 visit focused on his dispute with the Nation of Islam.

Fifty-one years ago today, on Tuesday, February 16th, 1965, civil rights leader Malcolm X visited Rochester. It was not his first time in the Flower City. The famed orator and activist had spoken at the University of Rochester in 1962 and was drawn back to the city in 1963 to meet with local law enforcement to discuss the recent arrest of two Muslims during a religious service.

Two years later, on February 16th, Malcolm X returned to Rochester upon invitation from the Colgate Divinity School.

The visit occurred during a tense period in the activist’s life. His Harlem residence had just  been bombed on Valentine’s Day. The culprits were presumed to be members of the Nation of Islam, the Chicago-based organization from which X had withdrawn in March, 1964.  His new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, bore a more secular message, which he reflected during his speaking engagements in Rochester.

For his first stop in the city, Malcolm X met with the Commission on the Negro and Theological Education, a student and faculty group at Colgate Divinity School. He then held a press conference at the Manger Hotel, where he discussed the American Civil Rights Movement, his split with the Nation of Islam and expressed his hopes to achieve “a society in which everyone can live as human beings.”

Corn Hill Methodist

Malcolm X further expounded on these ideas during his evening engagement at the Corn Hill Methodist Episcopal Church on Edinburgh Street. Standing in front of a packed house of both black and white audience members, X delivered a speech entitled “Not just an American problem, but a World Problem.” He touched on a variety of topics including Rochester’s recent race riots and the mass media’s depiction of African Americans, but above all emphasized the need to re-conceptualize the American civil rights movement as part of a global struggle.

He opined,  “…in no time can you understand the problems between Black and white people here in Rochester or Black and white people in Mississippi…unless you understand the basic problem that exists between Black and white people — not confined to the local level, but confined to the international, global level on this earth today.”

He concluded the impassioned hour-long address by stating that the Organization of Afro-American Unity sought to “make the world see that our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem. A problem for humanity. And a problem which should be attacked by all elements of humanity. A problem that was so complex that it was impossible for Uncle Sam to solve it himself and therefore we want to get into a body or conference with people who are in such positions that they can help us get some kind of adjustment for this situation before it gets so explosive that no one can handle it.”

Malcolm X’s lecture in Rochester would be the last public speech he ever gave. The human rights leader’s voice was silenced forever five days later on February 21st, 1965 when he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on February 16, 2016 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

Celebrate Black History Month with Rochester’s Rich History!

RRH logo

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

Presented by Dr. Tim Madigan

February 20, 2016


Rundel Auditorium, 3rd floor, Rundel Memorial Building

imagesCACSD0DPIn 1845 Frederick Douglass was invited by leaders of the worldwide abolitionist movement to come to Ireland, where he spent months visiting such cities as Dublin, Cork, Waterford, and Belfast and befriending orator and political leader Daniel O’Connell. Join us as we’re offered a glimpse of Douglass’s time in Ireland, where he came to feel for the first time that he was truly accepted as a human being.

To this day, Douglass remains a powerful figure for reconciliation in modern-day Ireland and Northern Ireland, with plaques commemorating him in Cork and Waterford, murals honoring him in Belfast, and a statue of him in Dublin.

O Tim Madigan and Danny Devenny  at Douglass Plaque Belfast June 2013

Dr. Madigan and muralist Danny Devenny in Belfast.

EE Tim Madigan with Plaque Honoring Douglass in Cork

Dr. Madigan at the Douglass plaque unveiling in Cork.

Dr. Tim Madigan is the Director of Irish Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, the city where Douglass lived for over 20 years after his return to America from his trip to Ireland.

~Cheri Crist, Librarian


Rochester featured in bicycling history

Several months ago, the Local History & Genealogy Division was contacted by a historian from the University of Vermont who was preparing to publish a book and wanted permission to reproduce several photographs from the library’s collection. Late last week, the result of his work arrived in the mail, and I was excited to discover that Rochester features somewhat prominently in the book.

51ViY7AOyEL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land, by Robert L. McCullough, explores the ways in which the late-nineteenth-century bicycle craze affected the American social and geographical landscape and the way people viewed it. As he writes in his preface, “For roughly two decades, from 1880 to 1900, bicycles and bicyclists shaped and reshaped American social, cultural, economic, and industrial history; introduced an independent and dependable means of overland travel; propelled a campaign to improve the nation’s pitiful network of roads; influenced the appearance of cities in subtle ways; swayed park planners; and set into motion the modern machine and engineering technology essential to the development of automobiles and airplanes” (xi).


Members of the Rochester Bicycle Club with their high wheels in 1880. From the collection of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

Bicycles were first introduced to the American public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The earliest contraptions to attract popularity were high-wheel bicycles with a large front wheel and a small rear wheel of the type shown in the photo above.

By 1880, when the national League of American Wheelman (LAW) was established, the more recognizable safety bicycles of today were starting to come into vogue. With their two equal-sized wheels, they proved easier to manage. But one problem remained: Where to ride? One cyclist, reporting on a tour in 1894, noted that “the greatest difficulty for touring in new districts was to find suitable points to obtain meals, but on more than one occasion the group also had trouble finding its way, venturing along cow paths of dubious outcome, into thick woods, across fields of high weeds, or through deep pockets of sand” (x).

side path map

Map of Side Paths of Monroe County, 1900. From the collection of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

This led bicycling clubs to lobby for better roads and, eventually, for designated bike routes. The Rochester Wheelman’s League formed for this purpose in 1892, and by early 1896 Monroe County’s first side path association was established. In 1898, county and city lawmakers approved a law authorizing creation of the government-run Monroe County Side Path Commission. The area’s cyclists had already built and opened 130 miles of bike paths with private donations, and five years later, in 1901, the county touted as many as 193 miles of side paths (161-62).

Although these paths are gone now, we are fortunate that a photographic record still exists. Sidepaths: Monroe County, a scrapbook of photographs taken by Cline Rogers, is  preserved in the Local History & Genealogy Division. McCullough has reproduced many of these illustrations in his book, but you can also view the scrapbook online in the library’s digital collections:

Robert McCullough, Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). We are currently cataloging this book. Look for it soon in the Local History & Genealogy Division.

-Christine L. Ridarsky, City Historian & Historical Services Consultant


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